Ex-soldiers say it's time for a Canadian to receive a Victoria Cross for Afghanistan

One of the country’s former top military commanders is helping to lead a push to honour some veterans of combat in the Afghanistan war with Canada’s highest military honour — the Victoria Cross.

Canada spent 13 years in combat in Afghanistan without once awarding the nation's highest military honour

A Canadian soldier with 1st RCR Battle Group climbs over a wall as he patrols with his unit in the Panjwayi district, south west of Kandahar, Afghanistan on June 6, 2010. (Anja Niedringhaus/The Associated Press)

One of the country's former top military commanders is helping to lead a push to honour some veterans of combat in the Afghanistan war with Canada's highest military honour — the Victoria Cross.

Former chief of the defence staff general Rick Hillier is among those behind a grassroots campaign and an upcoming documentary that will tell the stories of 10 recipients of the Military Star of Valour, the nation's second-highest military decoration.

Canada exited the Afghan war in 2014 after 13 years on the ground — many of them in combat — without awarding a single Victoria Cross.

The award for "extraordinary valour and devotion to duty while facing a hostile force" was created as a singularly Canadian honour in 1993, after more than a century of being a British Commonwealth-administered citation.

"We had decided to celebrate our own, except we've never done it," Hillier said in a Remembrance Day message posted online on Tuesday — pointing out that Canada itself has never given a Victoria Cross to a Canadian soldier.

Lieut.-Gen. Rick Hillier speaks to the troops following Remembrance Day ceremonies at Camp Julien Tuesday Nov. 11, 2003, in Kabul, Afghanistan. The now-former chief of the defence staff wants Canadians to nominate veterans of the Afghanistan war for Canada's highest combat honour, the Victoria Cross. (Canadian Press/Terry Pedwell)

He's asking the public to join a campaign to award the Victoria Cross "to a soldier or soldiers whom you judge deserving."

A group of five former soldiers, all of whom served overseas, have researched the cases and are planning to assemble a documentary, tentatively titled "Valour in the Presence of the Enemy," said retired corporal Bruce Moncur.

Moncur said he would not identify the 10 soldiers — all recipients of the Star of Military Valour — since neither they nor any surviving family members have been notified.

Hillier said their stories will be presented to the public — it's not clear when or how — and pledged that the campaign will offer its recommendations by Remembrance Day of next year.

A memorial to fallen Canadian and U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan at DND Headquarters in Ottawa. (Murray Brewster/Canadian Press)

The British, the Australians and the New Zealanders have each given out a handful of VCs for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the United States has awarded several Medals of Honour — the American equivalent — in both wars.

A spokesperson for the military said "no recommendations for a Victoria Cross were put forward (to the governor general) by the Canadian Armed forces prior to 2012."

Canadian troops ended their combat mission in Kandahar in 2011 and Canadian forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan three years later.

Since then, two of Canada's chiefs of the defence staff — retired general Walt Natynczyk and the current top commander Gen. Jonathan Vance — have launched reviews to make sure that each soldier received the proper citation.

Too late for new medals?

"A review committee reported to Chief of the Defence Staff General Natynczyk that the process had been fair and consistent, and that all awards respected the intent and criteria of the decoration," said Lt. Stéphany Lura.

The review requested by Vance concluded that "all honours for the Afghanistan mission had been processed and the time limits for such nominations (two years between the action and the nomination for Military Valour and Bravery Decorations) had elapsed."

Previously, the military has said it follows a stringent process, and a nomination for a bravery award must pass through no less than three committees of senior officers.

The last of Canada's 94 Victoria Cross medals were handed out during the Second World War — before Canada took over the award. The country's last living recipient, Private Ernest "Smokey" Smith, died in 2005.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.